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New Study Questions Mobile Phone Safety
October 23, 2002

New research has raised fresh questions about the safety of mobile phones, already in the spotlight after some scientists suggested they could cause brain cancer.

Tests carried out by Italian cell biologist Fiorenzo Marinelli suggests that phones, while not causing a direct cancer threat, may cause tumors to grow more aggressively, the Saturday issue of British weekly New Scientist says.

Marinelli's team at the National Research Council in Bologna exposed a lab dish of leukaemia cells to 900-Megahertz radiowaves, the frequency typically used by European mobile networks, at a power of one milliwatt, 1/500th of the maximum power emitted by a cellphone.

The researchers were looking at the functioning of genes that trigger cell death, a mechanism that can allow sick cells to flourish and become a tumor.

After 24 hours, these so-called "suicide genes" were switched on in far more of the cells that had been exposed than in a control group of cells that had not been exposed. In addition, 20 percent more of the exposed cells had died than in the control group.

That, therefore, suggested that the radiation could kill off cancer cells.

But the situation went dramatically into reverse after 48 hours of exposure.

The exposed cells did not die — in fact, a high number of them replicated ferociously. More and more of the suicide genes were switched off and three genes that encourage multiplication were switched on.

Marinelli, who presented his results at a workshop this month in Greece on the biological effects of electromagnetic fields, believes the evidence shows that radiowaves can influence gene cells that play a key in the spread of cancer.

"We don't know what the effects would be on healthy human cells," Marinelli is quoted in New Scientist as saying.

"But in leukaemia cells, the response is always the same."

The study is important because the big debate is whether the standard for measuring mobile phone safety is the right one.

The typical yardstick is that of ionising radiation — whether the radiowaves are powerful enough to cause heating that breaks apart the chemicals bonds within a cell, thus damaging to its DNA.

But numerous scientists believe that damage can be inflicted subtly by radiation that is non-ionising.

Marinelli suspects that, in his experiment, the radiation may have disrupted the chemical signalling within a cell, ultimately unleashing a defensive mechanism that caused cells to replicate out of control.

However his work has yet to be confirmed by tests on lab animals, let alone humans.

Numerous countries have carried out studies into suspected links between cancer and mobile phone use but they say fears are unfounded.

An inquiry by the British government in April 2000 found no risk of any health risks but still recommended that people take a precautionary approach, notably by restricting children's use of these phones.

On September 18 this year, the Swedish Radiation Protection Authority said it found "no consistent evidence" of a link and criticised several well-known studies that have raised fears of a peril.

Even so, several European reinsurance companies say they will no longer cover life-insurance risks connected to mobile phone radiation.

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